“Put your shoes on, I’ll get your coat; I’m taking you out to dinner tonight.”
I look up through wet lashes and a furrowed brow toward this calm yet commanding voice, my vision blurred, my nervous system frayed. I’ve been battling my computer all day, facing one technical snafu after another, trying to meet a deadline. One look at my blotchy face tells my husband all he needs to know: I need a break NOW. His words cut through my fog of frustration and fatigue, and I acquiesce.
My husband is one of the most tender, kind, and wise men I’ve ever known. In his wisdom, he’s learned when to take charge with me. He knows that giving me a command sometimes is the kindest thing he can do. Thoughtfully applied, taking command brings balance to a relationship. It can help dispel a vicious cycle and allows one partner to relax into the strength of the other. Of course, there are occasions when his take-charge attitude is met by equally stubborn resistance, and in those instances, he usually knows enough to try a different approach. Like I said, he’s a wise man.
Herein lies an important key to skillful communication—how do we keep finding ways that create clear connections instead of blurry attempts and missed opportunities? Part of my job as a coach is helping clients find new ways of perceiving old problems. People pay me good money to name the obvious . . . and then to find a not-so-obvious approach to shifting awareness around it.
One common area where both singles and couples complain they “don’t know what they’re doing wrong” is in creating quality time with another (aka a date). When someone comes to me complaining that they are not getting the results they want in this arena, I share a foundational observation about four basic communication approaches: Command, Offer, Invitation, and Request. Knowing how and when to apply these four different approaches can significantly increase their positive results.
A Command requires the person taking charge to embody a healthy confidence, and it presumes an implicit level of intimacy. As long as the recipient inherently trusts that the command is being made with their best interest at heart, it can be very effective. If done from an unconscious desire to squelch another’s autonomy or expression, it will ultimately backfire.
Making an Offer is the most popular—and most passive—approach in attempting connection. With an Offer, we are vaguely letting someone know that something is important to us without actually asking for what we want. Often the person making the Offer thinks they have been clear in making their intention known (“Come on over anytime!”), but the receiver hasn’t a clue that the Offer has anything to do with them personally. As the old marketing adage says, “If the customer is confused about what you’re selling, their answer is ‘no.’”
One of the most powerful communication shifts I coach clients to make is learning how to make clear Invitations. Invitations involve two exciting elements. They let the person you’re asking know:
1) I want to share an experience with you; and
2) I am willing to take responsibility for making it happen.
This level of candor creates a dynamic tension where the recipient directly feels your attention and must respond. Whether they say “yes” or “no” or “I don’t know” to your invitation becomes secondary to the impact your undivided attention and intention has on them (if they say “I don’t know,” take it as a “no” and move on). Receiving clear, personal invites is flattering to the recipient and deepens presence in the asker. Upgrading wishy-washy offers to purposeful invitations is one of the best ways to start getting more of what you want in your relationships.
The Request approach is borrowed from international conflict mediator Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. NVC models a way to clarify personal feelings and values and then, based on this data, supports people in making clear requests for what they want. NVC is a great tool for helping couples unravel their stories about each other (“You don’t care how I feel!”) and instead take responsibility for actually asking for what they truly want (“I have a need to be heard about topic X, and I am wondering if you’d be willing to give me some empathy.”)
These foundational approaches all have value, yet knowing which one to employ can make all the difference between igniting chemistry or creating confusion.
Try applying all four in a practice scenario, and notice which ones feel the most—and the least—familiar. Then use the communication approaches that are the least familiar with someone you’re interested in knowing better and notice your results.
This article, written by Joy Hosey, first appeared in the March-April 2015 issue of Spirituality & Health and the Spirituality & Health website.
One of the most common issues I hear from couples is the desire for “more intimacy.” But what exactly does this mean? The classic partner polarization is that for one person, intimacy means more sex, while for the other, it means more emotional connection. Upon deeper examination, however, what generally emerges is that both parties desire more physical closeness.
Skin-to-skin contact is our most primal interface with the world. In infancy, through a merged state with our mother source, we experience safety, nurturance, bliss. As our ego develops, skin becomes our body ego’s demarcation between “self” and “other.” The characteristics of what psychoanalysis calls “skin-ego” can be vulnerability, pleasure, or excitement. Neuroscience supports that the receptors in our skin deeply influence our nervous system development. When we have feelings—anger, embarrassment, anxiety, joy, or sexual arousal—we often feel it directly as a heightened charge at skin level. Imbalances in “skin-ego” lead to either a sense of feeling overly exposed to our environment (aka “thin-skinned”) or defended against intrusion or disappointment (or “thick-skinned”). When we allow someone “to get under our skin” we are admitting vulnerability.
But getting the type of physical contact we want is not always easy. Asking your partner for more touch and expecting them to understand what you mean is like telling them you are hungry without telling them what kind of food you want. Take Deni and Pam, for instance: Deni delights in slow, featherlight stroking on her skin, while Pam requires firm, deep pressure to help her relax. Their early forays in intimacy were fraught with frustration until they finally understood each other’s unique wiring. Much like the five basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami), there are also specific tactile styles. I call these basic styles The Five Fingers of Touch. They are:
Nurturing Touch: Often, when a couple comes to me after a long period of disenchantment with each other, both parties are longing for a revival of nurturing touch. Shoulder or foot rubs, back scratches, or head stroking are all common ways we communicate loving support to our partner. This helps us feel safe and bonded and is an essential antidote to stressors in our lives.
Playful Touch: Tapping, gentle pinching, wrestling, and conscious tickling can evoke levity and laughter for many couples. Making faces, growling, or other funny sounds can shift a dull atmosphere to one of comical camaraderie.
Passionate Touch: This involves short bursts of robust energy that disarms your partner. An unexpected full-body embrace or firmly holding their face or squeezing their buttocks can wake you both up from a trance of business-as-usual relating.
Sensual Touch: Awakening somatic senses is the key here. By subtly applying various types of pressure, tempo, vibration, and temperature, you can help shift your partner’s attention from outside concerns to internal pleasure. Soothing or tantalizing sounds, smells, and tastes can be added to enhance the receiver’s experience of sensory arousal.
Sexual Touch: Erogenous zones exist all over our bodies, not just our genitals. Knowing your partner’s favorite turn-on zones—and discovering new ones—can open up new realms of intimacy. And keep in mind that what feels good in one encounter may not be true in the next. Sexual touch is a wonderful opportunity to explore new tactile arenas while tenderly dialoguing with your partner about their experience.
There is an old relationship aphorism that says when a couple is having sex, it accounts for about 15 percent of their relational focus, but when they’re not having sex, it accounts for 85 percent. So when a couple wants to rebuild their sexual rapport, I invite them to invest a lot more attention in the first four fingers of touch—Nurturing, Playful, Passionate, and Sensual—to help open new pathways to Sexual touching satisfaction.
This simple game empowers people to ask for more of what they want, as well as to gain comfort in interrupting touch that doesn’t feel so good. It also helps both partners learn to be more present and more creative with each other. Here’s how you play:
This article, written by Joy Hosey, first appeared in the January-February 2015 issue of Spirituality & Health and the Spirituality & Health website.
SCENE ONE: My partner and I are in the car on a road trip, having a glorious time. I’m singing along to an old pop tune, rocking out, while he reads his GPS. I see him furrow his brow and then he asks to turn off the radio — ka-thud.
In that instant, I go from exuberant karaoke queen to crestfallen idiot as a series of scenarios cascade through my consciousness: He doesn’t like my voice; I should be a better navigator; he’s always squelching my expression. And in that micro-moment when I perceive him — and myself — from this lens of judgment, I recoil from him, if only slightly. Left unchecked, there’s a good chance that by the end of our road trip, I will have an internal file of “evidence” outlining all the ways he’s been controlling and judging me the entire trip — and beyond! You get the idea.
Welcome to the World of Withholds
“Withholds” occur when we project old thoughts and feelings onto current reality and (here’s the critical part) act as if they’re real but fail to reveal them. Whatever the content of the withhold, the energetic outcome is the same: we subtly (or not so subtly) withdraw from our partner. A minor incident becomes fodder for what likely is an old and recurrent theme in our life. These themes, or perceptual biases, start to take on a life of their own, and couples can find themselves staring across an abyss at someone they love but can’t relate to anymore.
In exploring the dynamics of thriving, intimate relationships, both personally and professionally, I’ve come to the conclusion that staying current and transparent is a key ingredient to long-term intimacy. This means finding honorable ways of confiding our inner reality to our mate, including the petty stuff. Although most couples say they value honesty, most consistently fudge the truth with each other — or worse, verbally bludgeon their mate under the guise of “I am just being honest.” Ouch.
Sharing withholds is an intimacy practice where both partners agree to share their inner terrain while taking full responsibility for their thoughts and feelings, instead of defending them. When done successfully, blame and shame take a back seat to self-acceptance and empathy. This requires the sharer of the withhold to acknowledge his or her inner world through a lens of curiosity, noting what body sensations, emotions, thoughts, and/or old memories were evoked. Having some distance from the triggering event and choosing to humbly reveal oneself (with one’s mate agreeing to act as a witness) helps bridge a gap before it becomes a gulf.
The practice of sharing withholds is not for the faint of heart or rigidly stubborn. It requires both partners’ agreement to let go of their defensive postures (or at least take full responsibility for them). I guide people to break down a withhold into four steps:
1. Talk about the triggering moment as if describing a snapshot.
2. Name the bodily sensations that occurred.
3. Claim any feelings (usually it’s some version of sad, mad, afraid).
4. Take ownership of any thoughts, stories, imaginings, or memories that were evoked.
It helps — a lot! — when the receiver of the withhold can offer authentic empathy for what’s been shared.
SCENE TWO: Fifteen minutes later down the road, after having sat with my earlier reactions to my mate, I ask him if he’s willing to hear a withhold. When he agrees, I tell him that when I was singing and saw his furrowed brow, followed by a request to turn off the radio, I had a visceral reaction — my throat tightened, my belly knotted up, and my exuberant energy dropped dramatically. I realize I felt scared when I saw his brow furrow and then got angry by his request. I share with him the cascade of thoughts and stories I made up about him and myself, ultimately realizing that it reminded me of scenes with my father in childhood — how he would send me to my room when I was “too loud.” I feel the pain of that early hurt wash through me and dissipate. When I am finished, my sweetheart smiles kindly and says, “I had no idea all that was happening. I was focused on directions and was afraid we were lost!”
“We almost were,” I tell him, and smile back.
This article, written by Joy Hosey, first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Spirituality & Health and the Spirituality & Health website.